Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ivory Tower Reconsidered

Read the Original Here

The article is about reconsidering work and passion.

Good morning, and thank you.

 The honor you have bestowed means a great deal to me. I have long been thrilled that there is a job called "college professor" that actually pays people to think about whatever makes them feel strongly, and to share their enthusiasms with others. I can't imagine what else I would rather do even without a salary; more soberingly, I can't imagine what else I could do for a salary. Colby has kept me occupied, impassioned, off the streets; I am at once gratified, and relieved.

 I am also thankful for this award because, although its history is brief--just two years old--its roster of recipients is formidable.

 When I arrived at Colby in 1980 I quickly learned from both faculty and students that the foremost teacher and most beloved figure at the College was Charlie Bassett. No surprise, then, that in 1993, Charlie became the first recipient of the senior class teaching prize. And, after 25 years here, and despite the difficult circumstances of this year, Charlie has remained Colby's gold standard for teaching, and caring. So I feel especially honored to be part of a tradition that he helped inaugurate.

 Last year the senior class speaker was Cedric Bryant, whom many of you know as both a distinguished teacher--at once rigorous and humane--and a campus leader of unsurpassed stature, in eloquence, in grace, and, of course, in height.

How I joined such good company I cannot say. But I find guidance in the reflections of an Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who, after wondering who among us truly deserves any awards, remembered to add, "But if one should come to me, I would seize it greedily, like a Viking." In that spirit, I accept with deepest gratitude.

 I was, I confess, a bit startled on hearing that I could not simply take the plaque and slip away, but rather must confer upon you yet another lecture. I thought about the seeming curse on awards recipients that leads so many otherwise sensible people, on receiving anything from an Oscar to a gold watch for retirement, to begin babbling without letup. Nor did my rather indulgent mandate--to speak about something--provide quite the focus I was seeking. I suppose this is a time for personal reflection, but in what direction? Should I regale you with heart-warming stories of my rise from humble beginnings in a log cabin in Brooklyn, New York? Or offer wistful musings on the exciting alternative careers I might have pursued had I but the opportunity--and the talent? But I think that in view of your imminent graduation, it might be best to explore the relationship between the campus that has anchored your lives for the past several years and the wider society you will soon be entering.

 Critics of higher education, and they may include most Americans, would say this is a simple matter: there is no relationship between the campus and the rest of society--at least none to boast of. You know the litany, which depicts colleges as elitist, subversive of mainstream values, and, perhaps worst of all, irrelevant to life beyond the ivory tower. Consider three of the most common items in this bill of indictment.

 First, that young people can find work without first spending four years, and an impressive amount of money, studying such exotica as the habits of Maori islanders they are highly unlikely ever to meet; the number of grams in a mole of oxygen, a subject that seldom arises in corporate boardrooms; or the philosophy of Socrates, a man so irritating his own neighbors made him drink hemlock. Conversely, the mastery of such subjects does not necessarily guarantee career success.

 A second chorus of criticisms, often laced with resentment, is that the focus at schools like Colby on promoting multi-cultural courses and events, while urging students to "celebrate diversity," has little value in the wider society, where people tend to seek their own kind in race, ethnicity, religion, and so forth, and where differences often spark less rejoicing than rejection, less celebration than conflict.

 Finally, critics scorn the ethic of activism on college campuses--the crusades to transform American society, stop war, save the rain forests, the whales, the dolphins, other mammals--in part because such causes appear radical, but also because they appear oblivious to real-world limitations. After all, most Americans feel overwhelmed by bureaucracy, buffeted by social and economic forces beyond their control, and stymied by a political system so unresponsive that our country's one great popular initiative in recent years has been to set term limits on our own representatives, apparently in the belief that to know a politician is to get rid of him.

 On the other hand, there are some defenders of campus values. They are rare, but conveniently located, nearly all finding employment on college campuses. Typically they invert the rhetoric of their critics, claiming that in a society afflicted by racism, sexism, militarism, class bias, homophobia, and other prejudices, the campus must remain a beacon of idealism. I'm not terribly comfortable with such defenses, partly because I doubt whether the campus has produced a nobler strain of human being or been spared the racial and other agonies of the larger society. And I am a bit bewildered that defenders as well as critics see the campus as standing so sharply apart from the rest of society--the city on the hill--or in the ditch, depending on one's perspective.

 I would suggest to you that this is nonsense. Colby has afforded you some valuable experiences and lessons precisely because, contrary to all the rumors, the kingdom of Mayflower Hill is very much of this world. I'd like to explore this with regard to your career prospects, the practical value of celebrating diversity, and the possibilities for activism--and influence--beyond the campus.

 Of the three areas, I find jobs the least interesting, but this might be because I have one. Some of you may be concerned about employment, so I want to be clear on this point: yes, you will get jobs, and yes, they will be good ones. You might think that my faith in your futures is a bit mystical--and, as St. Paul said, faith is based on the evidence of things unseen. But my confidence stems not from any epiphany but, rather, from tangible signs that are close at hand, but signs perhaps obscured by the relentless pressure of job searches.

 One reason that I can say you will do well after Colby is that I've had the pleasure of knowing many of you, and I've been impressed by the great reservoir of talent in your ranks. For many, that talent shines through your scholastic achievements--and surely the qualities of incisive thought, speech, and writing that you have shown in varied classes, papers, and projects will serve you well in virtually any field.

 But I'm speaking only in part about academics. As someone who spends much time correcting grammar and punctuation, I have found it all too easy to slip into believing that the placement of commas and colons is the true measure of human greatness. Well, it does provide one measure, for everyone should be able to convey ideas clearly and precisely. But we can stretch the meaning of a comma just so far. I am repeatedly astonished at how many levels of talent exist at Colby, whenever I catch a clever and moving student play like The Heidi Chronicles, or see the Colby Dancers display such grace, or hear songs from the Broadway Musical Review, or even, on one lone but thoroughly enjoyable occasion, catch an athletic event. In all these campus activities and so many others, one finds talent wedded to discipline, initiative, persistence, and hard work--and these are the hallmarks of success both on campus and in the wider society.

 I find it heartening, as well, that Colby graduates in years past have consistently gone on to outstanding vocational success. This may conjure images of one vast professional funnel buffeting graduates into Citibank and Met Life. Such admirable pursuits have indeed proved popular, and some of you will no doubt thrive in them. But for those of you anxiously asking, is that all there is for the next forty or fifty or, if you are not so lucky, sixty years, you might be surprised by how many ways Colby graduates have defined success, and how many paths they've taken to reach it.

 Some Colby grads teach, and not only in small towns just outside Boston but also in rural Louisiana and inner-city Baltimore, and in Honduras, Ecuador, and Japan. Others help abused children, as in a project to eradicate child labor in Bangalore, India. Colby's all-time leading basketball scorer, when not running a lumber company, dedicates time to a team playing basketball games against prison inmates at the Maine Correctional Center. Some grads like to mix and match careers, such as a young woman working as an environmental scientist while playing in Huron's Symphony Pro Musica Orchestra and studying trumpet. And one resourceful graduate, inspired by the job hunting experiences of his friends, wrote and is directing a film in Philadelphia about a recent college grad who confesses to the murder of a local businessman because he thinks life in jail will be better that getting a job. He hopes to show the film at film festivals.

 How long will you need to find your truest, most productive niche? This I cannot predict, for, sadly, access to a podium confers no gift of prophecy. But I can say that however long it takes, it will be time well spent. I am reminded of a friend from the early 1970s, Edward Witten. I liked Ed, but felt sorry for him, too, because, for all his potential, he lacked focus. He had been a history major in college, and a linguistics minor. On graduating, though, he concluded that, as rewarding as these fields had been, he was not really cut out to make a living at them. He decided that what he was really meant to do was study economics. And so, he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at the University of Wisconsin. And, after only a semester, he dropped out of the program. Not for him. So, history was out; linguistics, out; economics, out. What to do? This was a time of widespread political activism, and Ed became an aide to Senator George McGovern, then running for the presidency on an anti-war platform. He also wrote articles for political journals like the Nation and the New Republic. After some months, Ed realized that politics was not for him, because, in his words, it demanded qualities he did not have, foremost among them common sense. All right, then: history, linguistics, economics, politics, were all out as career choices. What to do? Ed suddenly realized that he was really suited to study mathematics. So he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at Princeton. I met him midway through his first year there--just after he had dropped out of the mathematics department. He realized, he said, that what he was really meant to do was study physics; he applied to the physics department, and was accepted.

 I was happy for him. But I lamented all the false starts he had made, and how his career opportunities appeared to be passing him by. Many years later, in 1987, I was reading the New York Times magazine and saw a full-page picture akin to a mug shot, of a thin man with a large head staring out of thick glasses. It was Ed Witten! I was stunned. What was he doing in the Times magazine? Well, he was being profiled as the Einstein of his age, a pioneer of a revolution in physics called "String Theory." Colleagues at Harvard and Princeton, who marvelled at his use of bizarre mathematics to solve physics problems, claimed that his ideas, popularly called a "theory of everything," might at last explain the origins and nature of the cosmos. Ed said modestly of his theories that it was really much easier to solve problems when you analyzed them in at least ten dimensions. Perhaps. Much clearer to me was an observation Ed made that appeared near the end of this article: every one of us has talent; the great challenge in life is finding an outlet to express it. I thought, he has truly earned the right to say that. And I realized that, for all my earlier concerns that he had squandered his time, in fact his entire career path--the ventures in history, linguistics, economics, politics, math, as well as physics--had been rewarding: a time of hard work, self-discovery, and new insight into his potential based on growing experience.

 No two career paths are exactly alike, and yours will surely range greatly. Some of you may spend a lifetime honing one set of skills; others may shift course more than once, tacking with the winds of discovery and circumstance. In every case: savor the time, and the work; and take heart from knowing that the path to your own best calling may not always be a straight line.

 The parallels between Colby's focus on celebrating diversity and the realities of today's society may not be quite so self-evident. But they are compelling, and not simply as a matter of idealism. The fact is that most Americans are minorities: whether racial, ethnic, religious, in matters of sexual preference, or in some other way:
Nonwhites form more than one-seventh of our population; during your lifetime nonwhites will grow to more one-fourth of our population.

 By the most conservative calculations, there are 106 ethnic groups in the country. The numbers are rising. The Bureau of the Census is considering new multi-racial categories to account for the varieties of ethnic identity and the assertion of ethnic pride.

 Thirty years ago homosexuals were still closeted in the society; today, homosexuals are not only streaming out of the closet but asserting their right to enter society through the front door.

 Celebrating diversity does not require us to love everyone, but merely to take people seriously--their thoughts and feelings, their history and hopes--regardless of their backgrounds. This is a necessity in a society where minorities play a crucial role in our politics and culture, and encounter us as co-workers, employees, even employers. Such respect is necessary, too, because in the world as a whole, Americans are a small minority, as are whites, as are Christians, as are Westerners.

 For those who doubt that appreciation of diversity is a practical imperative, consider a recent headline-making event that is as far removed from fuzzy notions of tolerance and cosmic one-ness as can be imagined. Last month the former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, once hailed as the single most able figure among the "best and the brightest" aides to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, admitted that the American involvement in Vietnam was a tragic mistake, as was his role in promoting it. I cite this not because McNamara set forth some startling new wisdom. Certainly not for that. Rather, his confession, a quarter-century belated, says something about the blind spots of a brilliant man--and a government--and a people--accustomed to brushing aside all perspectives outside their immediate experience.According to McNamara and others in government during the 1960s, we could not lose this war. We stood, after all, for American values and so would naturally win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese in our battle against godless communism. In any case, we had the technology and weaponry to pulverize any nation; surely no backward, primitive people could possibly withstand our military colossus--our deadly B-52 raids and artillery barrages that created four million refugees, or twenty-five percent of the South Vietnamese population; our defoliation of nearly half the South Vietnamese forests with Agent Orange and other poisons; our dropping of more explosives over Vietnam than had been unleashed in all previous wars combined.

 Only . . . only we lost the war, and with it much of our national prestige and even our self-respect. What went wrong? I'll tell you: no appreciation of diversity.

 McNamara, like his colleagues in government, knew little and cared less about the heritage and attitudes of the Vietnamese people, either those we were fighting or those we were professing to save. Otherwise our leaders might have spared themselves and their country a needless, pointless war.

 In 1988 a professor of government, Roger Bowen, and I took a group of students from Colby to Vietnam--the first college-age Americans to travel to Vietnam since the war. Hanoi's imposing Revolutionary Museum was especially revealing. Some historical exhibits featured the conflict with the United States, but our country did not receive pride of place. One room contained a giant painting of a naval battle during the tenth century in which small, primitive Vietnamese vessels lured a vast Chinese fleet into shallow waters and destroyed it--a triumph of determined nationalist resistance over technologically superior foreign invaders. Other rooms featured exhibits of resistance by small, primitive Vietnamese forces against later Chinese invaders; against French colonialists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; against the Japanese during World War II; again against the French, after World War II; and against the Americans after that. The entire museum was a testament, vivid and striking, to the way the Vietnamese defined their historical identity in terms of a single, relentless mission, spanning a millennium and more, to resist successive powerful, technologically superior foreign armies on their land, defying long odds for ten years, twenty years, a century, whatever the cost in time and in men, women, and children, till ultimate victory.

 If only we'd known. If only we'd cared to know. The facts were available even in the 1960s. But instead a self-confident American elite believed it could simply assert its virtue, impose its values, and ignore--or crush--the native Vietnamese. That disdain for a foreign, nonwhite people, removed from us by ten thousand miles of ocean and a universe of beliefs and values, brought a retribution as certain and unsparing as any in a Greek tragedy. Looking back now on the deaths of fifty-eight thousand Americans, the squandering of one hundred fifty billion dollars, the rending and demoralizing of American society, the shattering of our political consensus, and the lingering trauma of losing a war for the first time in our nation's two hundred year history, it becomes clear that the fact of diversity is one of the supreme realities in our shrinking world, and to accept and appreciate this fact is not simply a matter of moral sensitivity but an expression of the deepest realism. We may not be interested in diversity; but diversity is interested in us.

 Finally, the repeated injunctions by Colby's administrators, faculty, students, and visiting speakers to overcome apathy and inertia and become involved socially and politically is, at heart, a matter of homespun American common sense. First, because people need to matter--to have their lives make a difference to something larger than the infantile self. Second, because this country, more than most, tells its citizens that their ideas of right and wrong ought to count for something. And because history, particularly American history, has shown that young people committed to a cause can change their world.

 Consider the case of four shy, quiet eighteen-year-olds who became friends at a segregated college in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the fall of 1959. Like many of their peers, they spent long evenings in their dorms resolving the world's problems, armed only with unlimited idealism and several cans of beer. Their bantering exchanges roamed, in the great college tradition, from philosophical quandaries to the horrors of campus food and the choicest gossip. But their conversations persistently returned to a single, gnawing question: when would someone do something about the racial barriers that mocked their ambitions and their self-esteem?

 As they talked on, night after night, the questioning became more personal, inescapable: at what point would they, the younger generation of black Americans, take their stand against injustice? When their deepening friendship gave them, in the words of one student, "that little bit of incentive and that little bit of courage," they resolved to break the taboo on interracial dining by seeking service at the Woolworth's lunch counter, which law and custom had long reserved exclusively for whites. They knew they lacked precedents, lacked power, lacked a clear plan. When one offered the morale-building thought, "We'll stay until we get served," another cautioned, "Well, you know, that might be weeks, that might be months, that might be never." They feared, as well, the punishment they might incur from white authorities and black college officials. But on the last night of the semester one of the youths brought the months of earnest, anguished discussion to a sudden resolution. Pounding a dresser, he dared his hesitant friends, "Are you guys chicken or not?" The next morning, February 1, 1960, the four students approached the whites-only lunch counter determined to deal Jim Crow a blow that would not soon be forgotten.

 They got no Woolworth's coffee that day. But they returned to campus to find they had become heroes. Their commitment had elevated them past the status of straight-A students, past even the veneration reserved for the school's gridiron stars. The next day twenty more young men and women joined the protest; by the fourth day the first white students joined in from a nearby women's college. One youth described the rush to the forbidden lunch counters: "It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go. We were so happy."

 The protests spilled across state lines, targeting all racist laws and drawing in established black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and many whites as well. Within a few years these civil rights campaigns ended legal segregation throughout the South, toppling barriers that had stood for generations.

 Why did these four students--no older than any of you here this morning--have such a revolutionary impact on American society? Some historians conclude that they simply lit a fuse already smoldering among African Americans shackled by racial discrimination. This has a kernel of truth. But I would emphasize one other, indispensable ingredient in this recipe for change: these four young people all summoned the passion, the courage, and the will to act--to take their stand against injustice. Only in the wake of such daring do historians solemnly discourse on the "logic of events," and the "inevitability" of change; but as these four students showed, defying danger and their own doubts, each of us can create our own logic of events and, by acting, turn the dreams of one age into the "inevitabilities" of the next.

 And so, my colleagues and I join in wishing you the fullest rewards in the years ahead, as you seek your truest career path, find human connections across all barriers, find ways to matter in your community and beyond, and, as you have done at Colby, continue in every way, to stretch the mind--and the heart.

 Best of luck.

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